‘Act of Valor’ award honors courage of Van Meter legend
When I recently heard that a tremendous new honor was being bestowed on Bob Feller, one of my favorite Iowans of all time, I felt a sense of excitement … and also pride in the fact that I was privileged to know this great man and to share in one of his finest moments of the past decade.
On March 28, it was announced that Major League Baseball, National Baseball Hall of Fame and the USS Battleship Commission are teaming up with the Cleveland Indians to announce that the “Bob Feller Act of Valor Award” will debut soon. It is a trophy that will be given annually to baseball players, past and present, who exemplify the type of courage Bob displayed during World War II.
Let me give you some background. Several years ago, I was invited to the Bob Feller Museum in his hometown of Van Meter for a special appearance by Bob. I brought along some of my books, Iowans of Impact, that had a chapter on Bob, and donated them to the museum as a fundraiser. He signed them and they went up on the bookshelf.
Bob was very appreciative for the books and stood up to address the sizeable gathering about my donation. About an hour later, Bob and several of his friends went downstairs to share in a cake celebrating his birthday.
Bob motioned for me to come along. We all gathered around as he cut the cake, and then I asked him a question. “Bob, of all you have accomplished, what are you the most proud of?”
Now, here was an icon that pitched in the major leagues before he even graduated from high school. He played 18 seasons with one team, the Cleveland Indians, and set major league records for strikeouts, no-hit games and shutouts.
Some people have gone so far as to say they think Bob Feller is the greatest right-hand pitcher of all time!
I was thinking mainly of baseball accomplishments when I asked the question. But Bob wasn’t. He called everyone to attention.
“Mike has asked me what I am most proud of,” he said in his husky voice. “Let me tell you – it was enlisting to serve in the United States Navy during World War II.”
Even though Feller had a deferment, which could have made him exempt from military service, he became one of the first professional athletes to enlist after Pearl Harbor. At age 23, he gave up nearly four of the best years of his career to serve as a gunnery captain in the South Pacific, on the battleship USS Alabama. He saw combat duty, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.
He returned to the major leagues and won 26 games in 1946, setting a new major league strikeout record with 348. He retired in 1956 with 266 wins – and probably would have had another 100 wins had he not lost those years to the war. In 1962, he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility.
“This distinctly unique award will reward those who can measure up to Bob Feller’s courage and the strict standards by which he lived his life, every single day,” said Peter Fertig, creator of the trophy. John Cochrane, a captain in the Navy for over 30 years, helped establish the criteria.
Finalists for the “Bob Feller Act of Valor Award” will be announced around Memorial Day in Cleveland’s ballpark. Winners will receive their awards in a ceremony on Veterans Day in Washington, D.C.
Bob Feller died on December 15, 2010, at the age of 92. He graced the cover of the July/August 2010 issue of Iowa History Journal. Scott Havick, the museum’s director, was able to show the magazine to Bob before he passed away.
It was an honor to know Bob Feller … and I am delighted that his memory will be enhanced by this tremendous award. He would be very proud that his patriotism was acknowledged in such a fashion.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal. Born and raised in Waterloo, he retired from a 35-year newspaper career in 2002. He is the author of 21 books and is a public speaker. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)